Shadows and Lights
The second of my series portrays life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the surroundings. I produced them in the late 1990's.
Click an image below to enlarge it.
Click an image below to enlarge it.
A Lakota said about whites, “They follow us in stores as if they expect us to steal. Their police cars follow ours. And they look at us as if saying aloud we are dirty drunk Indians.”
A white said about Lakotas, “They don’t work. They’ve been receiving free housing, food, schooling, and medical care using our taxpayers’ money, but they still whine.”
A full-blood Lakota said about the half-breed, “They are too white and greedy. That town is full of such sneaky half-breeds. You’ll never see true Indians there.”
A white from the east said about whites living in border towns along reservations, “They are such racists that they care nothing of the poverty in their neighborhood.”
It is our weakness that we feel better when we degrade others in their absence.
One day, I heard a Lakota boy speaking on the radio. He and his friends used to ridicule whites behind their back. When they saw a white man walking a dog in the dark, they would say, “That’s white,” and laugh at him. The boy consciously stopped doing that. That was his initiation into seeing individuals beyond colors.
Sharing the Root
The first school he attended was on a military base, and his friends were a combination of different races and nationalities.
When he was in the fourth grade, his parents moved to a city. The majority of his classmates were white like him, and he was shocked to see how harshly they harassed the one or two Lakota students in the class.
When he was in the sixth grade his family moved to the reservation, and it was his turn to be discriminated against. He, the only white in the class, was picked on for every little thing from the very first day. He could not make friends. Tears welled in his eyes as he stood alone trying to defend himself.
One of my coworkers had large birthmarks on her face. When I asked her how other children had treated her in her childhood, she replied simply, “Kids can be very cruel.”
Oh, I was also among the cruel. In my fifth grade, we began calling a girl “sewer stink,” and we did not let her touch our belongings or play with us. I did not think what we did was bad because we all did it. As long as it was not me who was picked on, I did not care.
I regret what I did to that girl. However, if I were given a second chance, I am still not sure if I would be strong enough to stand up for her. I might not call her that name, but I would be so scared to stand out in the class and be harassed with her, that I might just ignore the matter.
May I be strong enough not to do that!
May I be able to influence children to appreciate differences and to stand up for those few and isolated!
When I showed this painting to my friend, she told me:
“I was 16 then. My mom and dad were having a party. Beer cans were all over. Everybody was drinking. I got drunk too, but went to bed quicker. When I got up in the middle of the night, I heard my little niece crying. She was screaming her head off, but nobody was hearing her ‘cause everybody had been passed out. I felt really bad for her.”
Unfortunately, I knew it was not only that friend who could relate to the painting.
After months of unemployment, he finally got a construction job. When I stopped by his trailer house to ask him how his first day at work had gone, he told me he had been fired on the spot, but he did not seem to care. His dreamy eyes revealed his heart was not there. Drugs again.... As I had been expecting more inner strength from him, I could not help showing my deep disappointment. I could not accept another failure of his. At last he lost his temper and threw the words at me:
"Have you ever gone through hardship like what I've gone through? You will never understand my pain."
Pain of Hatred
The Lakota man with hatred in his eyes burst out to a white man, “Your people killed our people and buffalos, stole our land, killed Crazy Horse, and massacred Big Foot and the innocent women and children. You broke every treaty you’d promised us, stuck us on reservations, and are drowning us with alcohol....”
I remember feeling how unfair those words were and was sorry for the white man who was visiting the reservation with nothing but an intention to help.
A few years after the event, I read a book on a revolution in Japan. Lower-class samurai warriors planned an assassination of a general. When the main character in the book tried in vain to stop them, he saw in their eyes an inextinguishable flame of hatred, which was not directed against the general in particular. He was merely one of the living representations of 200 years of their class’s cause of misery.
The story reminded me of the hatred I had seen in the Lakota man. What could we, natives and non-natives, do in collaboration to help ease the pain of hatred?
Passing Her Wisdom
A Lakota grandmother related the story to me of her 16-year-old daughter, who had been mysteriously murdered over 30 years ago. The case was never solved.
“Who killed my daughter? I used to ask myself the question ceaselessly. Even at night, I sometimes woke up with anger and helplessness choking my heart, and I felt like I could not go on any more.” As racism was prevalent then, she could have easily blamed whites for the murder of her innocent child, and could have lived hating them. The grandmother continued, “But then, my other kids, who were still small, helped me. They would say, pulling my apron, ‘Mom, I’m hungry,’ or ‘Mom, help me with this.’ They kept me busy, and I somehow went on. And I prayed. It was hard to live with anger sizzling inside. So I prayed.”
With time and prayer, her anger gradually abated, and instead of growing sore and vengeful, she became more accepting. The grandmother now welcomes anyone, and even defends her visitors against some Lakotas who would not allow whites to participate in traditional rituals. In a prayer service conducted on her land, whites, blacks and Japanese can sit and pray together with her family and relatives.
Love can overcome hatred. She is passing me this wisdom.
* In Lakota belief, fire represents life.
In a gas station, I met a man who had endured the most torturous form of piercing in a Sun Dance for four consecutive years. Today he was drunk and disappeared into a car with a 12-pack of beer.
In a sweat ceremony, I heard the confession of a man who had been sundancing every summer for the last quarter of a century. He confessed he had never been sober except those four days of the Sun Dance.
Another man had told me that when he prayed hard piercing became painless. When he knocked on the door of my house, however, he was drunk and asked for money.
I could not help criticizing them. When they could not continue to carry the spirit of a Sun Dance throughout the year, returning to alcohol time and again, what was the point of such a heroic prayer?
Then I heard a sundancer’s prayer, “I made a vow to stay away from alcohol, drugs, and arguments three months ago, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard….” He was in tears. His heart, sincerely trying to overcome his weakness, touched my heart and brought me to tears.
We pray because our heart is sometimes not strong enough, but there is a desire for better. Each sincere prayer, regardless of religion, even though we may fail in our vows numerous times, is still a small step forward.
What’s left for her in this world
We knew she did not like to be bothered by us as nurse’s aides. But we dragged her in her wheelchair to the whirlpool every other day; otherwise, she would never change, and her incontinence would stink. Other than that, we left the non-English speaking Lakota alone.
One day she did not touch her lunch or supper. She did not, or could not, wheel herself back out of the dining room, either.
“Bed?” I asked her.
“No!” As she always said no to everything, I ignored her answer and pushed her wheelchair to her room.
“Sleep?” I asked her, pulling her blanket on the bed, and then put her arms around my neck, trying to help her transfer to the bed. However, she did not cooperate with me. When I again asked “sleep?” tapping on the bed, she answered:
“Nisi wasicu. Miye lakota.” (You’re white. I’m Lakota.)
In those words, I understood her hatred toward non-natives, the invaders of her world, and I could no further force my assistance on her.
“Could you still hold my hand?”
I still remember a poem pinned on the wall of a resident’s room in a nursing home. It was something like this:
I used to sing, dance, run, work, laugh, and love.
But time has robbed them from me.
I can no longer sing or dance.
I am wheelchair-bound
With a frown on my sagging face.
I have to be fed.
I have to be put to bed.
I cannot even recognize you.
Yet could you still come to hold my hand?
When death is near, loved ones, long dead, sometimes appear to escort the dying one. There may be a long, dark tunnel with bright light, calmness, and tranquility at the very end. It is beauty beyond description.
The phenomenon happens to some people regardless of religion, race, class, or age; no matter how spiritual or agnostic they have been; or how fulfilling or pitiful their lives have been.
Beauty and peace await us at the end of our journey. Through the brief experience of dying, isn’t the Creator showing us how nonjudgmentally He loves us?
She loved adventure more than safety. I don’t know how many times she had made her parents worried, and a marriage to a similarly outgoing man did not change her until…
She related to me, “I was driving in a city. When I drive, I sometimes get carsick. On that day I needed to vomit and parked my car along the road despite the heavy traffic. As I knelt to vomit, I felt strong wind from the passing cars pushing me. At that moment I felt my son move. As I continued to vomit, resisting the scary wind, I repeated to myself, ‘I am going to protect my son no matter what.’”
I read a book written in the 1980s about Buraku, untouchables in Japan. Even decades after a 200-year-old discriminatory class system had been abolished, they were still treated as outcasts. Here are two stories from the book:
A teacher, a non-Buraku, grew up seeing poverty and discrimination against the Buraku, and he always stood up to protect their rights. Once, however, he was seen uncontrollably drunk, calling the Buraku names, and yelling at them to go back where they belonged. When he became sober, he did not remember any of the above, but he could not deny it as many had witnessed his shameful conduct.
Many non-Burakus were against having their precious children marry into the contaminated blood of the Buraku, but the young fell in love across boundaries despite their parents. A non-Buraku man had been a counselor, resolving conflicts between such youths and parents. He believed in intermarriage. However, when his daughter asked his permission to marry a Buraku man, he knew he was unreasonable, but he simply could not grant it.
If there were a mirror to reflect your inner self, what color would you be? Would you be comfortable or terrified to see who you truly are?
A Lakota lady shared her wisdom with us while she was stitching a moccasin.
“A coat of luxury is the hardest thing to remove” she said. “We used to need only four things for living - clothes to keep us warm, shelters to protect us from bad weather, nutritional food to keep us strong, and music. We only had those basic necessities, but we were happy. Look at the people now. They were being strangled by layers of coats of luxury, but they still want more.”
I wish I could simply untie myself from the material world and take off the layers, but the comforts I have grown up with seem to have glued to my skin. Yet, when I stand in the vast prairie, the warmth, a magic of Mother Earth, seems to melt away some of those layers.
Ishi's tribe was wiped out by diseases that white people had brought to his continent, by battles against the whites over his tribal land, and by starvation after having been defeated repeatedly. In 1911, after having lost everything, the sole survivor, Ishi, a skin-and-bones in rags, walked out of his hiding place into the world of his enemy. For five years, until pneumonia took his life, he worked as a janitor in a museum. It's amazing to me that he did not hate his former enemy. Instead, he would break the silence of the museum with a smile and a soft inquiry, "Everybody happy?" I wonder how he could forgive what they had done to his people.
His white friend wrote of Ishi, "He looked upon us as sophisticated children - smart, but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind, had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart." *
* Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi in Two Worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America. University of California Press. p248. 1961
Universe That Bridges Our Differences
During the first two years of my stay in the reservation, I attended three funerals. A friend said it was not rare to find a preschool child who had already been to a funeral or two. Death seemed a lot closer there. However, I seldom saw the strains of hard life in the people, who often teased or joked and laughed and laughed. Laughter…. it is their strength that has sustained their spirits and kept them from collapsing in misery and grief of generations.
That quality is not unique to Lakotas. I heard ranchers and farmers joke and laugh as they tackled their daily tasks. I laughed with Japanese laborers while our hands were busy packaging. Even at the side of a dying patient, smiles and laughter were present.
This ability is universal among us, yet unique to the human species. Sharing laughter and smiles, let us reach one another in the universe of our diversities.